Some notions about cities, after I came across a 2017 posting asking for potential cities to visit for a month (which yielded a list of over 50). We did some extended city visits over the years (months in Vancouver, Cambridge, Copenhagen, Lucca, and 10-14 days in Berlin, Helsinki). Originally the idea was an adaptation of what Tim Ferris in his book The 4 Hour Work Week called ‘mini retirements’. We wanted to figure out where to go live, and what was important to us in choosing a European city to live. This as there were no other elements (like location of day jobs) that would narrow down our choices.

To get to know a city better, not as a tourist but as part of the local fabric as much as possible, we’d relocate there for a month. Beforehand we’d contact our network there, or search for local introductions to find contacts and network. While we were there we worked and explored the city, and reached out to existing and new contacts. The change of surroundings and people, and taking in the city brings new inspiration, ideas and activity.

Cities are serendipity hubs (1), a heady mix of ideas, people, resources and capital that bounce into and off each other, making all kinds of new combinations possible. Cities are efficient, when they double in size they don’t use double the resources (2), and that frees up capacity for other things. Cities grow super-linearly, for each doubling it becomes 15% more productive and innovative (as well as more criminal btw) than you’d expect from the doubling (3). The engine behind that is the density of social connections, the more intense interaction fires up the city (4). Social connections have a network effect, which is non-linear.

When you visit as an outsider all that serves as a source of inspiration: you see the traces of other people’s creativity, emerging trends, the rough edges where the friction is. And you meet the people who are involved in all of that.

When you as an outsider first join life in a city you experience a contrast, and the bigger/different/other the city, the bigger the contrast.
I think that contrast between yourself and a city you relocate to is a potential energy. A potential energy that is based on the starting point that is your unfamiliarity relative to the city. As a curious outsider you see more things, hear more diffrences, then as a regular visitor or as an inhabitant. If you seek out that contrast there’s a rush of ideas, impressions, observations and associations to harvest. But like any potential energy, the contrast dissipates as you get closer to it, get more familiar with the city, explore more of it. You get used to your surroundings, and start seeing less that jumps out. So there are diminishing returns from relocating to somewhere for a while. Unless you embrace it, grow roots, and become fully part of the fabric: then cities are well suited to seek out the contrasts within it, more suited than less densely packed environments as they hold so much more variety, but it is a different activity and a qualitatively very different experience from the first ‘rush’ that contrast can provide. These type of stories can be found around the world about people packing up and going to NYC to act, university in London, etc.
Those dimishing returns are good I think, because it provides a natural end to a phase of exploration and discovery, making way for digesting all those impressions from the rush of using up the initial contrast.

I can’t remember where I read it, but somewhere I came across someone who applied a Pareto distribution to exploring a place: he spent 80% of a visit seeking out new things (restaurants, places to hang out etc), and the final 20% of a visit going to the best places he found in the first 80%.
That way you don’t stop exploring too early (letting the contrast slip away by quickly settling on a routine), but at the same time also preventing to keep on exploring only (akin to the endless scrolling of a FB timeline), helping the transition to the return trip by visiting some of the highlights again, and ending on a positive note (you don’t want to end up in your worst choice of restaurant on your last night in town). A rule of thumb for how to ease from discovery into digesting the discoveries.

We didn’t go anywhere after I asked for suggestions in that old blogpost I mentioned at the start. A few months before that posting we moved permanently to Amersfoort, and in the end getting to know our new surroundings was more important. We had plenty of contrast right in our own hometown.

Now that we’ve been here for three years, I’m thinking about ways I can heighten the contrast a bit, to be able to see more. And to take a different perspective on what’s really part of the urban zone as a serendipity hub around me. Amersfoort isn’t very big, but is within reach of a number of other cities, including Amsterdam (also not a big city, but the largest in NL). Now, someone from Amsterdam wouldn’t come to Amersfoort much for inspiration perhaps, but I can treat Amsterdam as part of my own urban environment, as it is close, without disregarding Amersfoort itself. I can add them together. The same is true for Utrecht (where I keep my company’s offices).

My friend Paolo‘s answer for any location in London about how far it is, is “about 50 minutes”. It’s funny and it is also true, because our natural surroundings are about one hour of travel in radius. E.g. people tend to treat a commute up to one hour as reasonable. So let’s take that as a measure: how many people do you have access to within one hour of travel? And how many within a circle of 90 minutes? You can use that notion to see where you can get inspiration, or contribute it, where the contrast has the highest potential. Or how to be a connector between one side of your radius and another (because they will be 2-3 hours apart)

Mapumental was an online tool that would show you from any given point in cities like London, Berlin and Helsinki, what was in reach of e.g. at most a 1 hour public transport journey. It usually showed surprising locations where you could go live and have as much access to the things you wanted as more expensive places. That tool is no longer online. I wonder if there’s an easy way to plot such a isochrone radius for public transport on a map with other tools. I found an online tool for isochrone maps that works for walking, and cars. The image below shows 1 hour and 90 minutes distance driving by car from our home (I had to register with the tool, to obtain an API key for testing). Although my actual reference would be public transport travel times, this gives a good illustration. Including that it covers most of the Dutch population, and that it has some surprises (like only needing an hour to get to rural Medemblik in the north-west, which mentally is more like 3 hours.) If you compare it with the coverage at our old address in Enschede, both w.r.t. Dutch and German population centers, the difference is striking.


Isochrone map with our home town at the center. Click to enlarge

Since my early university years I’ve held that from a spatial planning perspective, e.g. for infrastructures like rail, you’d need to take the Netherlands as a single city. Meaning that e.g. the train network should look more like a metro map (circles and cross lines), less like a long distance network (stars, hubs and spokes). More like a distributed network really. The image above underpins that I think. A 2016 report by Dutch middle sized cities came to a similar conclusion about seeing the Netherlands as a single urban area: don’t compete, but specialize and collaborate (5), as a single networked entity in short.

Seen from my hometown, I can reach Amsterdam within the hour by public transport, Utrecht in half an hour. While cities like Den Bosch, Zwolle, Arnhem and Deventer are also all within one hour, Rotterdam, The Hague, Eindhoven, and Haarlem are within 90 minutes. All of these are easily accessible, and I could mentally treat them as home turf, using them to maintain a higher alternating contrast. I think I don’t do that enough, but tend to default to Amersfoort too unthinkingly. A much richer perspective would be to see those other places as quarters of the Netherlands as a city, and use the fact that we live so centrally in this country-as-a-city much more actively.

(1) My talk at Cognitive Cities in Berlin, 2011
(2) Bettencourt e.a. 2007, Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities
(3) Bettencourt e.a. 2010, Urban Scaling and Its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime across Cities
(4) Pan e.a. 2013, Urban characteristics attributable to density-driven tie formation
(5) Magazine Midsize NL, 2016, PDF in Dutch

6 reactions on “On Cities and Contrast as Potential Energy

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